Surgeon general goes to the M.A.T. against obesity


Acting Surgeon General Steven Galson listened carefully Friday morning as the Manhattan Academy of Technology’s athletics staff explained the workout routine of a class of elementary students.

A boom box blasted “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and groups of kids jumped hurdles and scaled the indoor rock-climbing wall. Galson, the nation’s top public health physician, watched as the four students closest to him pulled themselves from one side of the room to the other on a wheeled platform using a suspended rope.

Then Galson asked if he could give it a try.

The 5- and 6-year-old children looked up at him skeptically but made room as the surgeon general, wearing a pin-studded military uniform, squeezed in and helped them pull. Galson grinned as he worked with the kids to move across the gym and back. After the team effort, the surgeon general shook their hands solemnly.

Galson visited M.A.T. in Chinatown as part of a national tour of successful gym programs. He wants to draw attention to the problem of childhood obesity, which he said has tripled since 1980.

“Programs like this are making a difference,” he said after observing M.A.T. “This program is fantastic.”

M.A.T. was the only school in New York City Galson visited. Seventy-five percent of the student body there plays a sport, a record-high percentage for a city K-8 school.

Galson said the energy behind M.A.T.’s athletics program is what makes it successful, and everyone at M.A.T. agrees that much of that energy comes from athletic director John De Matteo.

“I thought you were going to come in sneakers,” De Matteo joked as he shook hands with the surgeon general.

De Matteo then explained his philosophy of students challenging themselves and building self-confidence rather than focusing on beating each other.

“It feels good, but we deserve it,” De Matteo said of the surgeon general’s visit. “A good sports program can set the tone for an entire school.”

Before Galson left, he gave a brief interview to two reporters from The Scoop, M.A.T.’s student newspaper, in which he told them that every kid should find the type of physical activity he or she likes to do.

“It’s amazing being a reporter,” said a beaming Nikolas Karam, 13, after he finished the interview. Galson is “definitely” the most important person Karam has ever interviewed. An eighth-grader who runs cross-country for M.A.T., Karam said the school’s sports programs deserve the limelight.

Kerry Decker, M.A.T.’s principal, said she was proud to be recognized by the surgeon general. With the intense national focus on test scores, people often lose sight of the whole child, she said. Galson said he was inspired to visit successful athletics programs after hearing that many schools were cutting their programs in favor of test preparation. To Decker, M.A.T.’s example shows that schools can succeed both academically and athletically.

Decker said she likes working with De Matteo because he lives her motto: “No excuses, just make it happen.”

— Julie Shapiro